Tuesday, 30 September 2008

2008 Season Review: Durham

Continuing our season reviews, 'Durhamfootman' offers an assesment of Durham's triumphant campaign.

Final placings:
Championship Div 1 - Winners
FP Trophy - Semi-finalists
Twenty20 Cup - Semi-finalists
Pro 40 Div 1 - 3rd place

After the euphoria of 2007 and the club’s first piece of silverware, it was always going to be hard to live up to the expectations, some of it optimistic, of its supporters in 2008. Yet that is precisely what Durham did, by winning their maiden county championship title, just 16 years after gaining first-class status.

The central core of Durham’s success lay in its seam attack. The loss of Ottis Gibson was always going to be difficult to overcome, but England, in their wisdom, saw fit to provide the solution, by dropping Steve Harmison from the test team.

Harmison, with a point to prove, set about demolishing division 1 batting line-ups with vigour. Re-discovered rhythm, pace and accuracy saw him return figures of 60 wickets at an average of 22, ably supported by Callum Thorp (50 @ 19s) and Mark Davies (39 @ 15s). A less successful season for Plunkett and Onions, both suffered from injury problems and struggled to get going, once fit. More will be expected from them next season, once Harmison returns to the England fold.

Ben Harmison made steady, if not spectacular, progress with the ball, but was found a little wanting, with the bat. Nevertheless he has shown that he may well have the ability to play a bigger role in 2009. Spin has never been one of Durham’s strong suits, but Paul Wiseman was an ever-present, chipping in with 16 wickets and scoring some very useful runs. Gareth Breese had limited CC opportunities, yet averaged 184 in the final two games of the season. Reason enough, I think, to thank him for.

The batting department was less successful. Batting collapses were an all too familiar feature of Durham’s season, without ever proving truly fatal. DiVenuto (1058 runs) and captain, Benkenstein, (783 runs) were the bedrock of the batting line-up and the team’s reliance on them, in the early part of the season, at times bordered on the embarrassing.

The introduction of Will Smith steadied the ship and he chipped in with 925 runs from 12 matches, which included 3 big hundreds, one a double hundred, and 3 fifties. Fortunately for Durham, of those three players, only one of them was ever out of form, at any one time.

The overseas players did little to rectify the batting imbalance, McKenzie was poor and Chanderpaul only came good towards the end of the campaign. Phil Mustard failed to improve on his 26 average from 2007, but his final innings 84, helped get Durham over the line. The fact that Durham secured 8 batting points less than Surrey, is probably a ‘flattering’ reflection on Durham’s batting. This will need to be addressed for the 2009 season.

Durham were able to make a determined defence of their FP title, losing out to Kent in the semi-final. They established themselves in the Pro 40 division 1, after promotion last term, finishing a creditable 3rd. The biggest improvement came in the Twenty20 cup, where Durham’s record of being the worst county in T20 cricket was redressed with a maiden appearance (albeit woeful) at Twenty20 finals day.

2009 will be an interesting season. Benkenstein looks set to relinquish the captaincy, but is likely to remain Durham’s most influential player. Harmison will be a big loss. The contracts of some senior players will end next year, which is likely to lead to some retirements.

The challenge for Durham will be to continue with the development of its young players like Harmison jnr, Stoneman, Smith, Coetzer, Muchall and Park, all of whom have now got first team experience. These are the players who must step up and be ready to fill the places that will be left in 2010 by DiVenuto and the, poorly selected, overseas batsmen. Hopefully Durham will then be able to acquire the services of a world class spinner. It is now time for the team that convincingly won the 2nd XI Championship, to lead Durham's 1st XI to further success, in the coming seasons.

Player of the Season:
Probably a toss up between Harmison and Smith

Most Disappointing Player:
Neil McKenzie

Stupid question

Twenty20 Cup semi-final

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2008 Season Review: Northamptonshire

Continuing our season reviews, here is an assesment of Northants's campaign.

Championship Division Two - 4th
FP Trophy - 3rd, Midlands Division
Twenty20 Cup - Quarter Finalists
Pro40 Division Two - 9th

If it could have gone wrong for Northamptonshire in 2008, it probably did, as a season that began with high hopes ended in typically desultory fashion, as they failed to win a game in any competition over the final 67 days of the season. Rumours of dissension in the dressing room (rumours that allegedly came with a strong Afrikaans accent) didn’t help as Pretoria-upon-Nene endured another barren season.

If no one could understand what they were saying in the dressing room, it was hardly surprising as there were times when I couldn’t understand what they were doing on the pitch or in terms of team selection.

The County didn’t always help themselves on the field (notably with the suicidal decision to bowl first in the final game of the season, as Middlesex closed the day on 291-1, and a succession of top order collapses) but they were set on the back foot by the ECB’s initial decision to block the registration of Andrew Hall and Johannes van der Wath, found themselves dogged by bad weather and saw their best hope of silverware in years disappear with the toss of the coin under the Chelmsford lights.

Northants began the season in typical style by losing their first two Championship games. In Hall and van der Wath’s absence, they were forced to scramble for an overseas player and came up with Johan Louw, a player who we didn’t really need and one we certainly didn’t need when Hall and van der Wath were finally cleared to play. However, we were stuck with him and ultimately the ECB’s desperation to appease their Indian paymasters cost Northants a lot of money that they could ill afford, a move that will have a long-term impact on the club’s budget.

Promotion in the Championship was always liable to be beyond Northants’ reach but they ultimately sustained a promotion challenge until the penultimate game thanks to a 13-game unbeaten streak. The weather compromised a number of promising positions but an inability to take wickets ultimately cost them. However, all things considered it wasn’t a bad effort although it may be hard to improve upon next season in a division containing Kent, Surrey, Middlesex and Essex.

The chance of glory in the Friends Provident was dashed by a combination of bad luck (Hall and van der Wath’s arrival was delayed by red tape – thanks a bunch Giles Clarke – while Northants finished with more points than two of the eight teams that advanced to the quarter finals) and a rotten performance against Leicestershire on a glorious day where four of the County’s top five amassed 12 runs between them.

The Twenty/20 was there to be won. They started brilliantly, winning four games in a row, and then went off the boil in spectacular fashion, limping into the quarter finals and being drawn away against Essex. Whether the conditions that night were suitable for play is a moot point. Essex won the toss and effectively the match. Although the Eagles played much the better cricket on the day, Northamptonshire’s fate was sealed at the toss – a throwback to the bad old days of September cup finals at Lord’s.

The less said about the Pro 40 the better. Northants lost all six games they played (if the weather had not washed out the game with Kent, the Spitfires would doubtless have won and would have qualified for the playoff ahead of Glamorgan) and were frankly abysmal. Riki Wessels and David Sales provided the lone pockets of resistance in a succession of abject performances as the bowlers captured just 31 of a potential 60 wickets and none of the regular top three managed to average 20 with the bat. The whole thing was a fiasco with Northamptonshire invariably giving the impression that as the ECB had decided to scrap the competition after 2009, there was no point taking it seriously.

At times the batting was brilliant. David Sales, Rob White and Lance Klusener all topped 1,000 runs in the Championship – White enjoyed a breakthrough season after years of frustration – while Niall O’Brien, Stephen Peters and latterly Riki Wessles all scored heavily. O’Brien did a great job after stepping into the opener’s role while Wessels was arguably the County’s most exciting player over the second half of the season. He is still only 22 with the ability to make it to the top. It may be a tad ambitious to predict that a player who spent time in the second team this season could yet play for England after his father, Kepler, played for South Africa and Australia but he has enormous talent.

At other times the batting was abysmal. The old Northamptonshire adage of playing crap shots to crap balls and getting out in crap fashion lives on with White and Wessels as guilty as anyone and there were times when the theory that one wicket brings two was replaced by the Northamptonshire mantra of one brings four.

The fielding was hardly brilliant (there is a place in my nightmares for Sales throwing the ball in from the deep midwicket boundary at The Oval, whereupon Jason Brown sidestepped the ball and White and Nicky Boje dived in each other’s way and allowed it to speed on unhindered to the cover boundary) but the bowling was the area where Northants really fell short.

With the exception of van der Wath in the Championship and Hall in the Twenty/20, the bowlers’ performances fluctuated between iffy and abysmal. David Lucas tried his best and had some success while David Wigley also tried hard but their limitations were clear for all to see. Despite that they both earned new two-year deals.

Hall invariably looked overweight but found the stamina to get through four-over spells in the Twenty/20 while van der Wath was lethal at times. Louw was rubbish – at one stage he was omitted in favour of Wigley – and Klusener’s days as a bowler were clearly over, a fact that made his release easier to understand and deal with.

The spinners disappointed. Boje took 33 wickets and was the pick of the bunch but Panesar did little when he was available (18 wickets in seven games, including 7 in the final match of the season) and Jason Brown was hopeless, claiming just 9 Championship scalps at a cost of almost 80 runs each, a damning statistic that led to his release.

The fact that Northamptonshire claimed the second highest tally of batting points in the country and ranked dead last in the bowling points stakes offers clear testimony as to where the flaws lay at Wantage Road in 2008.

There is hope for the future with Sales, White and Wessels developing into a potent middle order and if Wessels kicks on next year he will replace the departed Klusener’s runs. Seam bowling reinforcements are desperately needed and an overseas pace bowler to partner van der Wath is a priority. The County has purged some of the dead wood from the ranks – retaining Wigley was presumably cheaper than buying a new bowling machine for the nets – and with a little luck and a couple of shrewd signings, next year might just be the year...

Player of the season: Still not sure about this one. Sales and Klusener were typically effective while O’Brien had as good a season as he could have done considering he started off the season uncertain of his place in the team. Rob White finally strung together a season’s worth of decent performances and scored 1,000 runs for the first time while Wessels lit up the skies with some superb hitting in the second half of the season and van der Wath and Hall had their moments. On the grounds that O’Brien was the official County Player of the Year and I can’t bring myself to agree with much that they do, I’ll nominate White for the award.

Most disappointing player: A toss up between Johan Louw and Monty Panesar. A desperation signing after the ECB initially blocked Hall and van der Wath’s registration, Louw did nothing to justify his status as an overseas player and proved to be a total waste of money who couldn’t even get in the side every game. Panesar did little more than upset the balance of the team when he played and was a pale shadow of his former self.

Highlight: The announcement that Sales had signed a new four-year contract and would be staying at Wantage Road was probably as good as it got (thereby ensuring we kept our best player and dashed Ashley Giles’ hopes of signing him into the bargain) although the news of Richard Logan’s release was also good news. On the pitch Rob White’s century to set up victory over Warwickshire in the FPT was pretty impressive as was making it four wins in a row to start the Twenty/20 campaign.
Lowlight: How long have you got? Collapsing to 61-9 in the next 20 over game, getting bombed out for 61 at Southend in the Pro 40, losing the toss and the game in the Twenty/20 at Chelmsford and having to bat in the rain under lights (admittedly we made certain of defeat with a fairly arse performance but in all honesty Australia would have struggled), failing to win a game since July 22, coming bottom of the Pro 40 and losing all six games we played....

Get the idea?


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Monday, 29 September 2008

2008 Season Review: Worcestershire

Continuing our season reviews, here is an assesment of Worcestershire's campaign.

Championship Division Two – 2nd; (2nd)
Friends Provident Trophy – 3rd, South West Conference; (Group Stage)
Twenty20 Cup – 5th, Mid/West/Wales Division; (Group Stage)
Pro40 Division One – 7th (4th)

Worcestershire began the 2008 season with high hopes of regaining their division one status in the county championship, as well as cementing their place as one the most consistent one day teams in the country.

Boosted by high profile winter signing Simon Jones, as well as the promise of young talents such as Darryl Mitchell, Stephen Moore and Steve Davies being nurtured by the more mature Kabir, Hick and Smith it looked as though the season held real promise.

At the beginning of the campaign Worcestershire found themselves with an Aussie leading the attack, as surprisingly Simon Jones was injured! Steve Magoffin came with a good pedigree from Western Australia, and was filling in for the internationally committed Fidel Edwards. Magoffin bowled manfully, for long spells throughout the start of the season and when he left mid season it was with a respectable 23 wickets at 32.

However, the real early season column inches were being filled by the other two seamers, Kabir and Simon Jones. It was almost a certainty that one or the other would take a five wicket haul every innings, and before injury curtailed Jones’ season he had taken a staggering 42 wickets at just 18.

The other star performer of the early season was Stephen Moore. The first man to reach 500 championship runs (in a really poor season for batsmen all over the country) Moore finished the season with 1288 first class runs at 54 with 5 hundreds. He finally signed a new deal with the club during the season and is now firmly established as one of the finest openers in the country.

As well as Worcestershire’s solid start to the championship campaign there was a more than reasonable attempt at the Friends Provident Trophy. Although the value of this trophy seems to be rated higher than the Pro40 league, it is unlikely that any Worcestershire player would complain too strongly if this early season farce was scrapped. With too many games affected by the weather, this is simply a distraction and a further congestant to the fixture calendar that the players don’t need. With too many dead overs in the middle the game lasts too long and doesn’t make for attractive viewing.

In terms of other domestic one day competitions Worcestershire flattered to deceive again in the T20 cup, and despite possessing such potential stars as Solanki, Hick and Ali Worcestershire just can’t seem to get to grips with twenty over cricket. Again, Hick was the clubs highest run scorer in the competition and this is just one area in which the club will struggle to replace the great man.

Strangely, although having to contest a place in the end of season play off in the Pro40, this was probably the clubs most successful one day competition. It certainly was for one young man, who after an impressive season in championship cricket (698 runs at 38) had a blistering finish to the season in the Pro40. Steve Davies scored 491 runs at 82 in Pro40 and if another good season follows next year an England call up surely cant be too far away.

However, despite all of the seemingly endless one day games Worcestershire marched on in the championship and in an amazing spell won four out of five championship matches, three by ten wickets and the other by an innings. This really was the spell when promotion was clinched for the club.Eventually the club stumbled over the line, hampered by injuries to key players (including, unsurprisingly Jones) and eventually lost the title to rivals Warwickshire.

Funnily enough, this was not the biggest event of the final few weeks of the season. A fairly innocuous 14 made at Kidderminster, ironically the ground where he first came into English cricket, saw the end of the greatest career in the modern game. Graeme Ashley Hick was forced to retire before the end of the season and there is nothing to said really apart from thanks Graeme, and enjoy your retirement because we have certainly enjoyed watching you over the last twenty-odd years. A staggering 64000 runs in all cricket make him the highest run scorer ever, and although he is humble about his achievements now – that is the way of the man – I am sure one day he will look back and allow his chest to swell just a little with pride about his career at New Road.

So, to the future. Who replaces the great man, and who do Worcestershire need to bring in to survive in the now ultra competitive division one. The batting has looked vulnerable, and Moore will need a couple of new recruits around him to take the pressure off. Spin bowling has been lacking as Gareth Batty’s powers have waned over the last couple of years and the seam department still looks light on the ground, especially with the possibility of Simon Jones breaking down at any moment.

Player of the season:
Tough to choose between Kabir (59 wickets @ 18.74) or Moore (1288 runs @ 53.66). The fact that Moore carried the batting on his own on more than one occasion gives him the edge.

Most disappointing player:
Fidel Edwards for not turning up would be the easiest to say, but probably Gareth Batty. 393 runs @ 28 and 25 wickets @ 38 makes pretty poor reading and this is possibly an area for Steve Rhodes to look at. However, he has been bowling on a soggy New Road pitch and may profit from drier grounds such as Hove, Trent Bridge and Taunton.

Back to back 10 wicket wins in the middle of that purple patch in July confirmed the club were headed for promotion.

Difficult to pick one on the playing side, but it would probably be the retirement of the greatest Worcestershire batsman ever. However the club choose to honour him will be fitting, but not only is he one of the greatest cricketers of the modern era, he is a terrific human being, too. A sad loss to our game.

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2008 Season Review: Hampshire

Final Placings:
County Championship Division One – 3rd;
FP Trophy - 4th, South-Eastern Conference;
Twenty20 Cup – 4th, South Division;
Pro40 Division One – 2nd.

Hampshire enjoyed a respectable season in 2008 and the final results look quite promising for the future. Indeed it was a season of two halves and it could have been a whole lot worse! In the initial few weeks of the season things looked grim. Dimitri Mascarenhas was away in India or with England more often than not and Chris Tremlett was enduring a frustrating time with injuries yet again, a trend which continued throughout the year. Greg Lamb looked woefully short of being a threatening four day spin bowler, much less a replacement for Shane Warne (8 wickets at 71.37), and he has in fact now been released by the county. The batting was experiencing it’s usual woes, with even the normally reliable John Crawley and Nic Pothas both out of form. Then, Shane Bond (19 at 19.21) got injured and Hampshire were without an overseas player and were missing their entire bowling attack from the previous season, James Bruce and Warne having of course retired, whilst Shaun Udal had switched allegiances.

The Friends Provident Trophy campaign never really got going and Hampshire soon found themselves bottom of the County Championship. Paul Terry parted company with the county and the search for a replacement is ongoing, with Chris Adams high on the list of wanted candidates. The Twenty20 Cup campaign, the finals day of which was held at the Rose Bowl, was less disappointing than usual, with the county only one victory from making the knockout stage. Shane Watson’s failure to show up was a blow, although Ian Harvey did a good job in his absence, with both Michael Lumb and Michael Carberry continuing to show that they are excellent limited overs performers. Nante Hayward was briefly impressive before succumbing to injury and it will be interesting to see if Hawks fans see any more of the South African Kolpak signing next season. In a competition as strong as the South Division though, it was always going to be hard to emerge from the group which contained three of the four semi-finalists and furthermore, the two finalists.

Into the backend of the season and Hampshire were occupying one of the two relegation places in the Championship and it was questionable as to how they could turn it around. Imran Tahir’s arrival as overseas player marked the beginning of the recovery, as did the emergence of spinning allrounder Liam Dawson, who scored his maiden century in the final day victory over Nottinghamshire. The two spinners dominated opposition batting line-ups in the Pro40 competition, sweeping Hampshire to second, Dawson finishing with 11 at 13.72 and Tahir with 12 at 20.33, whilst Billy Taylor also chipped in with an impressive 13 at 15.38. In fact, were it not for the rain, Hampshire would in all likelihood have won the competition, with Sean Ervine finding some late form. Meanwhile, in the four day game, Tahir especially was proving to be a real trump card, as opposition batsmen the land over were bamboozled by his vast array of mysterious deliveries. The Pakistani A leg spinner was definitely key to the revival in Hampshire’s fortunes. Meanwhile, sides continued to struggle with the impressive James Tomlinson, the young left arm seamer, who was consistent throughout the entire season and ended as the divisions top wicket taker, most impressive.

As per usual the main problem with Hampshire was the batting, although at the start of the season the bowling had looked to be the more pressing concern. In the Championship only Nic Pothas (53.5) and Michael Brown (40.86) managed to finish with respectable averages, whilst Michaels’ Lumb (32.72) and Carberry (28.60) continue to fail to transfer their fine limited overs returns into the Championship. John Crawley meanwhile appears to have seen his best days (27.73 from only 9 matches). Only Pothas (3) scored more than one hundred and he also registered the best score (137). Hampshire’s deep batting was once again their saving grace and it is clear where the Hawks need to improve in the future, especially as they mustered only 33 batting points (7th in the division), yet managed 47 bowling points (1st in the division).

The bowling figures do look a lot better for Hampshire, with Tahir (44 at 16.68), Tomlinson (67 at 24.76) and Mascarenhas (41 at 23.82) the stand out performers, though it is worth noting that Tremlett had a disappointing year (27 at 37.0), due to both injury and knock backs from Team England. Between them, Tahir (44) and Bond (19), compensated well for the absence of former captain Shane Warne, whilst Mascarenhas tried to continue the Warne tradition of attacking and playing to win. He was however overly cautious until the end of the season, the game against Lancashire at Old Trafford a prime example of how a crisis of confidence and a mentality of safety first had set in at the club after the poor first half of the season.

Player of the season:
It would be easy to point to Imran Tahir, as his arrival had such a massive impact, but without the ever dependable Nic Pothas, the county’s highest run scorer, and the consistent wicket taking ability of James Tomlinson, Hampshire would probably have been sunk before his arrival. Those two rightly share the award from this commentator.

Most disappointing player:
Greg Lamb. 8 wickets at 71.37 is awful for a spinner, a batting average of 20.92 is a poor average for an allrounder and it is no surprise that the club finally released him early, after he managed just 1 wicket at 102, from 17 overs, in the Pro40 and a 0 from his one innings. He was never going to be a replacement for Warne or Udal as a specialist bowler, but he can not even be called an allrounder unfortunately after this season.

Highlight: The dramatic low scoring victory over Durham which proved to be a key moment in the season following the victory over Yorkshire, with Sean Ervine crucially hitting 94 not out, as Hampshire recovered from being bowled out for 96 in the first innings and from having slumped to 77 for 5 in their second, to score a winning total of 240-8, beating eventual Championship winners Durham in the process by two wickets. Nail biting stuff.

Lowlight: Having to wait until mid-June for the first County Championship win, interestingly enough, it was also against Durham. It was probably the result of a loss of leadership, with Warne throwing in the towel just weeks before the start of the season and Mascarenhas gallivanting off to India to join him for a few weeks.

IX of the Season:

Pothas (wk)
Mascarenhas (c)

2008 Season Review: Essex

Final placings:
Championship Division Two - 5th;
FP Trophy - winners;
Twenty20 Cup – semi finalists;
Pro40 Division Two - winners

Essex enjoyed a successful 2008 season, confirming themselves as one of the premier limited overs teams in the country. Unfortunately a similar winning formula continues to evade them in the championship, where they will start 2009 in division two for the eighth time in 10 years of the two division structure.

Promotion should be an achievable target next season, as the county has emerged from a transitional phase. Mark Pettini has had a full year in charge after being handed the reins early on in 2007 and a selection of youngsters can also no longer cite inexperience as a reason for under-performance.

Paul Grayson has made an excellent start as coach and there is every reason to expect One Day success can be transferred to the longer format.

Essex possess a blend of youth and experience that has been complimented by some astute signings. David Masters excelled in coloured clothing, taking 22 wickets at 18.81 in 16 Friends Provident and Pro40 matches, maintaining an economy rate of 3.65.

Chris Wright blossomed late in the season to become the team’s strike bowler, which precipitated the release of Alex Tudor. Jason Gallian did a decent job as opener and has one more year to help develop the burgeoning talent of Tom Westley and Jaik Mickleburgh, who burst on to the scene with fluent half centuries in his first two championship knocks.

Maurice Chambers, Jahid Ahmed and Varun Chopra also showed glimpses of what they can offer in the long term and the youth policy which has provided England with Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara is clearly in good order.

Bopara was in stunning form this season – England’s mystifying preference for Luke Wright is Essex’s gain – hitting 1,256 first class runs at 61.85 and 726 List A runs at 66 and a strike rate of 106.92.

Although home-grown players have made significant contributions, Essex’s Kolpak recruits have also been in good form.

Kent nemesis Grant Flower played calm match-winning innings in the Friends Provident final and Pro40 showdown and is an example of a Kolpak player who enriches a county squad. Ryan ten Doeschate falls into the same category, displaying all-round One Day skills that can only help the development of youngsters.

Senior players Graham Napier and James Foster produced some eye-catching performances in front of the TV cameras, although there is much more to both than their respective big hitting and sparkling glovework.

Napier was a reliable opening bowler in all competitions and Foster’s batting continues to be underrated – once again a case of England’s loss and Essex’s gain.

The one concern remains the absence of a class strike bowler to compliment cult figure Danish Kaneria. James Middlebrook and injury-plagued Tim Phillips struggled to maintain the spin department in the Pakistani star’s absence and Andre Nel was disappointing as an early season replacement.

The retention of Kaneria is crucial to Essex’s hopes next season, when it will be a case of more of the same, please, with the added bonus of a promotion push.

Player of the season: Bopara, Masters, Kaneria and ten Doeschate all deserve mentions, but James Foster’s peerless wicket-keeping and consistent run-scoring (1,544 in all competitions) was the most important part of the team’s success.

Most disappointing player: Westley and Chopra passed fifty only five times between them in 35 first class innings, but their time will come. Alex Tudor never quite delivered during his time at New Writtle Street, although he at least proved his injury problems can be managed.

Highlight: The seven derby clashes with Kent were all enthralling, with victory in the Friends Provident final standing out.

Lowlight: Essex and division two champions Warwickshire both won five matches, but were separated by 45 points. Being bowled out for 78 by a poor Glamorgan side at Southend was the prime example of some limp batting displays.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Championship Review - Final Week

And so another thrilling season ends, with issues at the top and the bottom of Division 1 going right down to the wire. In another shock move, my predictions from last week turn out to be spot on. And congratulations to Warwickshire, who pip Worcestershire to the 2nd division title

Division 1
Durham started the week in second position and needed a win against struggling Kent, who also needed good points in their battle against relegation. Putting Kent into bat, Durham made a great start, Steve Harmison taking four wickets as Kent made just 225. In reply, Durham declared on 500 for 8, with Mike di Venuto scoring 90 and Gareth Breese an unbeaten 121. Kent were quickly reduced to 17 for 3 in reply and with Callum Thorp getting the first seven wickets to fall, never looked like making Durham bat again. Harmison cleaned up the tail and Durham won by an innings and were now waiting on the Nottinghamshire result. Kent took just two points from the game and were reliant on a positive result between Yorkshire and Sussex to stay up.

Nottinghamshire were entertaining Hampshire, who also started the week with their eyes on the title. Durham’s haul of bonus points put paid to that, but they started match very much on an even keel, with their 203 being only slightly bettered by Notts 211, Notts losing their last five wickets for just 9 runs, thanks largely to Imran Tahir. Second time round, Hants found batting easier, amassing 449 for 5, with 93 from Michael Brown and unbeaten centuries from Nic Pothas and Liam Dawson. Notts thus needed 442 to win at a run rate of around 6 an over to take the title. They gambled in opening with Graeme Swann. However, the task was too great for them and they were bowled out for 238 to give Durham the title.

Meanwhile at Sussex, the relegation battle between the home team and Yorkshire was twisting and turning day after day. Yorkshire, who started the week in the relegation zone, batted first and were 80 for 6 at the end of Day 1. However, centuries from spin duo Adil Rashid and David Wainwright, with support from Tim Bresnan and Matthew Hoggard got Yorkshire to 400 for 9 and maximum batting points. Sussex were then reduced to 207 all out, despite a century from Chris Nash. Second time round, batting was easier for Sussex with a Murray Goodwin century leading Sussex to a draw on 397 for 9, despite Rashid taking seven wickets. Both teams stay in Division 1 and will look to build on seasons that promised more.

At Taunton, the home team still had hopes of the title, while Lancashire were still in danger of relegation. However, the goings on between Durham and Kent soon put paid to both eventualities. Somerset struggled to 202 all out in their first innings, conceding a lead of 46 to Lancs who made 248. Somerset then made 227 second time round, with Gary Keedy taking 5 wickets. Lancs knocked off the 183 to win for the loss of two wickets, with Mark Chilton making 93.

In a spirit of disbelief rather than anything else, last week I wrote:

Prediction time: Very rarely this season has a team stayed at the top for more than a week (and most teams have topped the table at some point). I am therefore going to predict a Hants win over Notts, opening the door for Durham to take the title, whose win will relegate Kent, as Sussex and Yorks play out a draw.

I just wish I’d put some money on it!

Congratulations to Durham, whose mix of local talent and Kolpak experience has taken them to their first title, despite the loss of Paul Collingwood for most of the season and Steve Harmison for parts of it. Commiserations to Notts and to Kent, who were the only ever-present team in Division 1.

Division 2
The only unfinished business was whether Warwickshire could take the title and they started with 315 against Glamorgan, despite Adam Shantry taking five wickets. Glamorgan, who have had a much more promising 2008, then subsided to 193, with the 18 year old Chris Woakes taking 6 wickets. Second time round, the Bears made 280, with Shantry taking another five wickets. Not to be outdone, Woakes also took his tally to ten in the match and with Neil Carter taking five wickets Glamorgan made 223 to give Warwickshire a win by 179 runs and the Division 2 title.

Essex’s title hopes were finished by Warwicks last week, but they put that disappointment behind them to make 510 against bottom club Gloucestershire, Varun Chopra getting his first ton of the season and James Foster continuing his recent good run with another century. Gloucester made just 195 in reply. Second time round a century from Kadeer Ali and an obdurate unbeaten 70 from Steve Snell saw Gloucester to a draw.

Middlesex have finished the season well and scored 545 for 7 against previously challenging Northamptonshire. Centuries for Andrew Strauss, Owais Shah and Eoin Morgan, with Monty Panear taking five wickets. Northants made 256 in reply, with Shaun Udal taking 5 wickets and after Middlesex had declared on 171 for 2 second time round, Northants needed 461 to win. A century from Rob White and 95 from Riki Wessels took Northants to within a hundred runs. However, with the last four wickets falling for 6 runs Middlesex ran out victors.

Finally, Derbyshire opened up with 194 against Leicestershire, Garnett Kruger taking five wickets. In reply, Jake Needham took 6 wickets as Leicester made 208. Derby managed 203 second time round, leaving Leicester needing 193 for victory, which they made with the loss of just 2 wickets thanks to an unbeaten 84 from Boata Dippenaar.

So Warwickshire and Worcestershire go up, while Middlesex must be wondering what would have happened if they had found their end of season form a couple of weeks earlier. At the bottom, Gloucestershire finish winless.

England Player watch
The last chace to make an impression before the winter tour is announced and centuries for Andrew Strauss, Owais Shah, James Foster and Adil Rashid will advance their cases while Eoin Morgan will surely make at least the Lions tour. Ravi Bopara missed out on the Essex run-fest.

Steve Harmison took seven wickets, as did Monty Panesar while Adil Rashid went two better with nine.

Player of the Week
All of the important action was in Division 1, so while Chris Woakes and Adam Shantry bowled well, the main contenders come from the top flight. Bowling brilliantly to take Durham to the title was Callum Thorp. However, coming into bat at 80 for 6 with relegation looking certain and marshalling the tail to get to 400, then taking nine wickets to almost force a victory, the Player of the Week is Adil Rashid.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

2008 County Awards

While it didn't quite match the sheer last-gasp drama of the 2007 County Championship, the '08 one still had an extraordinary ending, with three sides harbouring hopes of winning it until well into he final game. And, such was the competition's tightness, that Kent went from favourites to being relegated in all of nine days.

Of course, the dreadful weather played a huge pat in ensuring such a tight race. Still, there was much to saviour, with Durham's maiden championship just rewards for a county consisting of quality players from overseas and a plethora of home-grown talent.

(These are based on all county cricket, but with an emphasis on the Championship and especially Division One).

Best player: Hard to look beyond Steve Harmison, though Ravi Bopara comes close. After his humiliation in New Zealand, his comeback was quite stunning. The third highest wicket-taker in Division One - perhaps not much of a surprise. But the manner in which he improved his consistency and subtlty to take 35 one-day wickets - no one managed more - was testament to his desire for self-improvement. It was fitting that he wrapped up the championship with a spectacular spell of three wickets in four balls.

Best batsman:
Oddly, no stands out: Mark Ramprakash had a disappointing season by his Herculenean standards, but still finished top of the Division One averages. But Murray Goodwin, a player who oozes class in all he does, deserves the accolade.

Best bowler:

Best performance: Martin van Jaarsveld had what can only be described as the perfect game during Kent's turnaround victory at The Oval. Two unbeaten centuries, leading his side to a testing run-chase victory, and 5/33 with his very occasional offspin. Simply phenomenal.

Most astonishing win: Sussex stealing the Pro40 crown at Trent Bridge, when they required 97 from 10 overs with just two wickets remaining. But in Goodwin, they have a man of exraordinarily cool temperament - as well as all the shots. With Mohammad Sami providing fine support, he got it down to 16 off the last over - and won the title with a final-ball six.

Most influential player: Imran Tahir was an ignominious failure for Yorkshire last season but revitalised Hampshire's season with his leg-spin. 44 wickets at 16 turned a sinking ship into, briefly, title contenders.

Best comeback (1): The season was awash with them, led by Harmison. But, though his season ended in another injury, Simon Jones's 42 scalps - at 18 apiece - showed that he could well still have an England future.

Best comeback (2): Tony Frost was meant to be on he Warwickshire groundstaff this season. Instead he answered an SOS when Tim Ambrose was wanted by England. He hit 1000 first-runs runs at 83: not too shabby.

Worst overseas signing: Shoaib Akhtar, half-fit and at a five-figure expense for one wicket in two innings defeats. An embarassment, much like the club he played for.

Most under-rated players: Harmison got the plaudits, and rightly so, but Mark Davies and Calum Thorp deserve them too. Starting the season in the Durham 2nds, they took 91 wickets at 18 between them: stunning, and enough to leave one-time England prospects Plunkett and Onions carrying the drinks.

Biggest chockers: Nottinghamshire should have done the double. But Sussex' jaw-dropping snatching of the Pro40 crown, and a feeble collapse against Hampshire, when they were on course to build a decisive first-innings lead, meant they ended with nothing. And Chris Read, so admirable as skipper, will have those believing this is further evidence he is a man who does not relish pressure.

What are your thoughts on this campaign? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

If you're interested in writing a season review for your county, please email it cricketingworld@hotmail.com.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Give Panesar some slack

There seems to be a consensus currently that Monty Panesar is treading on thin ice. That if he doesn't perform in India he should be dropped. That his record against India is poor and that Swann might do a better job. There is some sense in these views and evidence to back them up. However, I would contend that Panesar is still a top Test spinner, whose best years are certainly yet to come, and that England would be insane to drop him.

I have read numerous articles of late that suggest Panesar had an average summer for England and that his powers are waning. Having watched virtually every delivery of the series against South Africa I would refute this charge very strongly. Panesar, like all the bowlers in the series, was asked to toil on some very batting friendly pitches. This he did, ending up the third highest wicket-taker in the series, with the second best average and and excellent economy rate.

But for some very negative batting by South Africa, dropped catches, missed stumpings and atrocious umpiring Panesar could easily have ended the series with twice the number of wickets and a match-winning haul in the decisive third Test. That he didn't is the nature of cricket, but to accuse him of having an average series is grossly unfair.

It is fact that Panesar's record against India is poor. They have been his toughest opposition in his short Test career - the only team to force his average above 38, raising it to a massive 55. This is a huge hike when compared to his overall Test average of 31.95. However, it is worth remembering that the 6 matches Panesar has played against India included his first ever Test series, in India, and a home series that was dominated by the bat. In that series in England only seamer friendly conditions at Trent Bridge allowed either team to force a result, with India winning it and the series (1-0).

It is fair to say that Panesar has struggled against India, but he is not alone in that. A certain Shane Warne has a record little better against the Indians. Over 14 Tests versus India, Warne managed to take just 43 wickets at an awful average of 47.18, with an economy rate of 3.10 and a strike rate of 91.2. The great leg spinner only managed one 5 wicket haul against India, despite his constant attacking.

The truth is India play spin brilliantly. They are nurtured against slow bowlers, mastering the required technique, even when playing the best, such as Warne and Murali (whose average in India is just 39.58). To expect a finger spinner such as Panesar to do better in India than the likes of Warne and Muralitharan is madness. Yet, it seems that that is what Monty must do if he is to retain his Test place according to many critics.

Surely, it is better to expect Panesar to bowl as well as he can and hope that in doing so he helps England to perform well in what is traditionally their second toughest tour. Without the pressure of unrealistic expectations Monty might just surprise everyone and get the better of India's spin masters.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Kolpak controversy. Or is it?

The controversial Kolpak loophole is to be closed, but the counties might not be as affected as we suppose.

Along with seemingly constant rain and the tight Championship finish, the 2008 county season will be remembered for the Kolpak conundrum. The issue of overseas players plying their trade as domestic performers has been around for a while, but the apparent increase in numbers has really grabbed the attention this season.

Pundits and fans have been quick to denounce the influx of players from abroad, claiming the signings to be a short-sighted temporary measure that restricts the development of home-grown players.

However, the loophole in European employment legislation that allows foreign players to bypass the county overseas quota is apparently to be closed, meaning a possible 60% reduction in non-England qualified players in 2010.

Will this have as much of an impact on the counties as we are led to believe? Many claim that Kolpak players deny mediocre journeymen county players first team opportunities rather than youngsters and there are some interesting statistics that support this case.

Leicestershire are often held up as the principal Kolpak culprits, but the Grace Road club this week revealed that they played more English qualified players under the age of 25 than any other county.

South Africans Dillon du Preez, Garnett Kruger, Claude Henderson, Jacques du Toit and HD Ackerman epitomise the worth of the Kolpak ruling, but Leicestershire have still managed to field 5.27 under 25 Englishman per championship match.

Joshua Cobb leads the way. The stylish stroke maker turned 18 last month and with a first class average of 52.62 from eight matches is rightly presented as evidence of the Foxes’ commitment to a youth policy.

Leicestershire have suffered a disappointing campaign but might actually reap the benefits of planning ahead, as the ECB is set to offer incentives for counties who pick domestic players under 25. Kent, who used only one such player all season, might need to recruit some home-grown youth.

Those who defend Kolpak signings cite the experience and knowledge overseas players bring and it is indeed a mistake to view these players merely as ‘has beens’; Northamptonshire played only 1.07 under 25 Englishmen in the championship this term, but few would argue that Nicky Boje, Andrew Hall and Lance Klusener’s contributions have been anything but positive, despite their best years being behind them.

The proliferation of South African Kolpakkers suggests this avenue of recruitment has been more damaging to the Protea system than ours and we should indeed be grateful that the arrangement has been a one-way street.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

2008 Season Review: Surrey

Final placings:
Championship Division One - 9th;
FP Trophy - 4th, South-eastern Conference;
Twenty20 Cup – 6th, South Division;
Pro40 Division Two - 5th

Amidst the fallout following one of the worst seasons in Surrey’s history and all the psychobabble, the fairest summation of the club’s state came, perhaps surprisingly, from skipper Mark Butcher. He said simply “it is probably a year overdue for us”.

Surrey finished fourth last year – and, given that they were as good as anyone in the second half of the season, notions of a title challenge did not seem so fanciful. But of course they were. For their resurgent end to the 2007 season owed an extraordinary amount to the brilliance of Mark Ramprakash and Harbhajan Singh. Patently, gaping problems remained within the side. Just no one seemed willing to recognise them. Surrey had this awful season coming to them, with the lessons of last season and their ’05 relegation unlearnt. Essentially, the side who won eight trophies between 1996 and 2003 have just kept getting older, with young players lacking in ability, attitude, or both.

Taking 20 wickets: mission impossible
The most fundamental problem with this side was their hopelessly ineffective bowling attack. Failing to take twenty wickets in any of their 15 games is the most damning of statistics. New signing Pedro Collins was too inconsistent; Chris Jordan likewise as he suffered from second-season syndrome. James Ormond began the season leaner and with renewed nip. But the awarding of a new contract on the back of a few encouraging weeks is a further indictment of the whole Surrey set-up: what sort of message does it send that 13 first-class wickets at 43 are sufficient for a new deal?

Hopelessly bereft of penetration, Surrey succeeded in embarrassing themselves further with the disastrous locum recruit of Shoaib Akhtar. But they were doomed when he arrived. A bigger reason for their relegation was the utter ineffectuality of overseas bowler Matt Nicholson. Though he has retired from Australian state cricket, Surrey, in their desperation, signed him up. But 11 wickets at 57 from nine championship games is an appalling return for an ‘overseas star’, for all his admirable batting.

Star winter signing Saqlain Mushtaq began encouragingly; but, like so many of the ‘golden generation’, his best years have gone. In truth, he did better than expected to finish with 38 championship wickets (11 more than the next best) but failed to provide the late-season inspiration Harbhajan had delivered a year previously. Unfortunately, Chris Schofield’s season was decimated through injury, one mitigating circumstance in the atrocious Twenty20 Cup campaign. Once masters of the game, Surrey lacked regular six-hitters and canny bowlers alike. Their near-complete reliance on locum Abdul Razzaq for inspiration was embarrassing.

A lack of leadership
Butcher’s injury woes, coming just after a return to the opening position and a superlative run of form, evoked ‘Four More Weeks’, Ramprakash’s 2005 diary named after Butcher’s pronouncements whenever asked about the date of his comeback.

Surrey had made a reasonable enough start to the campaign, drawing their first five games, with their batting unit looking better than for several seasons. Butcher’s injury severely weakened that, while Ramprakash struggled as captain – immersed in his quest to reach his 100th century, and frustrated with such an impotent bowling attack. Alan Butcher has correctly been removed as coach; his son will probably lose his job likewise, provided that a satisfactory replacement can be found. Indicative of the lack of forward thinking at The Oval, any new skipper would have to be recruited externally.

Batting buckling under pressure
Surrey actually claimed more batting points than at least five sides in Division One – although this is a somewhat deceptive statistic, given their penchant for collapsing brainlessly under pressure. The most pathetic such instance was in the crucial game against Kent. Cruising at 53/0 in their second innings, with an overall lead of 177, they somehow conspired to lose their last ten wickets on a sunny day and a docile track for 80, with the very occasional spin of Martin van Jaarsveld claiming his first ever five-wicket haul.

There seems a collective failure to score runs under pressure, Ramprakash excepted. Scott Newman at least managed two hundreds, while Usman Afzaal’s average of 45 was hard to argue with, but Jon Batty had his worst season for several years and had to be moved down from opener. The collective efforts of the next generation – Stewart Walters, Chris Murtagh and James Benning – were woeful, though at least Matt Spriegel showed a certain amount of resilience.

Any signs of hope?
Surrey’s one-day exploits were slightly more encouraging than their County Championship and Twenty20 efforts, thanks largely to Jade Dernbach. A true wicket-taker, the seamer claimed 23 scalps in the eight Pro40 games thanks to movement and aggression. Add in a Championship six-wicket haul and he was the nearest to a ‘positive’ from the calamitous season.

It is axiomatic that Surrey are a club in need of big changes, with the appointment of Graham Thorpe as batting coach appearing a shrewd start. But years of muddled thinking and short-termism will not be easy to rectify, especially with so many serial under-performers still contracted.

Player of the season:
Ask a stupid question. The gap between his 99th and 100th first-class centuries – the result of age-old mental frailties, say his critics; a broken bat, says the man himself – may have been agonising, but either side Mark Ramprakash was as good as the ’06 and ’07 player who averaged 100. Six hundreds in Division One, in the weakest side, by far: tremendous by any criteria.

Most disappointing player:
Where to start? Shoaib Akhtar would be an obvious candidate, but it would be unfair to scapegoat a man who played only two games. While a plethora of ‘promising youngsters’ flattered to deceive, the experienced West Indian left-armer Pedro Collins singularly failed to impress. Too wayward, too often.

Highlight: Off-field finances have never been better; the story was rather less satisfactory on the pitch. The Butcher-Nicholson double-century stand against Yorkshire was perhaps as good as it got. Butcher’s stroke-play was spectacular, better than at any point since his England days – but he was injured almost immediately afterwards.

Lowlight: No shortage of options, clearly. But two consecutive home innings defeat constituted an aptly pathetic end to a season in which Surrey were perhaps the worst county in the country.

How can Surrey end their slump? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

If you're interested in writing a season review for your county (whether or not you contributed to our season prevuews), or writing on anything cricket-related please leave a comment or email it to cricketingworld@hotmail.com.

Monday, 22 September 2008

The Second Spinner Slot

As the county season builds to its climax, thoughts inevitably turn to England's winter commitments. The squads have already been touched upon here, but I think there are a few questions worthy of a closer look. The first is the identity of the spinners that England will bring with them to India.

Once you get into the details, this is quite a thorny problem. We will obviously bring Monty as first choice, and for all the (partially deserved) criticism he received over the summer, this is the correct decision. The problem comes when you start to think about who else to bring.

We have to work on the basis that two spinners could be required on either of the pitches prepared (and it is a disgrace that we are only playing two Tests in favour of seven ODIs, but that is another rant for another time). I'm also going to assume for the purposes of this article that we will bring three spinners to counter against some of the complexities I'm going to set out below.

The three contenders for these two spots appear to be Graeme Swann, Adil Rashid and Samit Patel. I would suggest that any other pick would be out of left field, but if any of the more assiduous county watchers have other names up their sleeve I'd be fascinated to hear them. The problem is that it is not clear what role(s) the second spinner will be expected to play...because that depends on who is dropped to accomodate them and who is picked as wicketkeeper.

If Prior is our keeper...

...then the pressure on the second spinner to contribute with the bat is lessened. Prior can be regarded as a top six batsman, and so with Flintoff at 6 and Prior at 7 there should not be too much onus on the upper-middle order to contribute, and the wicket-taking potential of the spinners should be uppermost.

If Foster (or similar) is our keeper...

...then we will be more worried about the fragility of our batting when Flintoff arrives at the crease. Whilst on his day Freddie can be a game-changing batsman, he is also prone to getting out quickly when his eye isn't in. To have Foster, Ambrose or any other untried contenders coming in at effectively 6 would put a lot of pressure on the upper-middle order to be there as a safety net.

If Broad is dropped

...then his replacement needs to be a plausible Test number 8 at worst. The strategy of Flintoff at 6 depends there being batting to come if he doesn't come to the party, and Broad is a big part of that back-up. If Broad is the one to go (and on pure bowling terms, he is probably the most vulnerable) then extra emphasis will be put on the second spinner's batting.

If Harmison or Anderson is dropped...

...then the batting of any of the potential second spinners is at least as good as the guy he's replacing. So again, this would weigh towards including the most effective bowler.

The Stats

Who then is "the most effective bowler"? Well, let's do a quick comparison of the first class county figures for this year:




















Doesn't look great for Samit Patel, who has primarily been a part-time spinner and has barely scratched the surface despite playing 13 games. Rashid leads the way with the most wickets, but has played more games than Swann, whose wickets have cost less and come more often. The factor not represented here is that Rashid's bowling has turned a corner (sorry) in the last 6 weeks or so, where he has looked much more dangerous and taken a significant percentage of his wickets.





















The reverse seems to be true here. Rashid, for all his early promise, has had a torrid season with the bat, scoring less runs than the other two without any absences for international duty. Swann sits fairly comfortably in the middle - he would be an asset at no. 9, and probably just about good enough for no. 8. Patel's batting is the strongest, suggesting he should be more than happy at 8 (and possibly even could cope with 7, hypothetically).

So who gets the nod?

OK, so feed all this data in, and which two names get spat out by the machine? Well, only one does really. It is clear than Swann has to go - he is arguably the best bowler, and as an off-spinner would complement Monty; at the same time he could bat 8 without disgracing himself. But the choice between Patel and Rashid will give us a lot of insight into the selectors' thinking in relation to the keeper and who will make way. Selecting Patel should cause Broad to start practicing his drinks-carrying, and give hope to whichever keeper is selected alongside Prior. Selecting Rashid, on the other hand, gives the team a genuinely attacking option in reserve, but one who might be propping up the order with Monty.

So the selectors have to make some calls in advance, rather than leaving all the decisions until they get to India. They might decide that Swann will get the nod regardless of the combinations above and around him, in which case they should take Rashid to give him experience. They might decide that Prior will definitely have the gloves for those two games - again, advantage Rashid. Or they might feel that Broad will be the one to make way, in which case Patel's batting should put him over the top. Or maybe Patel's performance in the ODIs (something I've glossed over here on the basis that I feel it to be irrelevant to Test cricket - Colly, for example, has a 6-fer in ODIs and barely gets a bowl in Tests) will be decisive.

Or they might only bring two spinners. Or KP might be tuning up his offies and have no intention of ever playing a second spinner. I don't have the answers, but the questions are damn interesting.

Championship - Week 20

It’s all set for a grandstand finish at both ends of the table in Division 1, while in Division 2, it’s all over as the Bears and Pears clinch their promotions.

Division 1
Starting with a battle at the bottom end of the table as struggling Lancashire faced Kent, who were also looking for their early season form. Kent put Lancs into bat, skittling them for just 107, extras top scoring with 32. 91 from Geraint Jones then took Kent to 233 and a substantial first innings lead. Lancs did better second time round, Stuart Law getting 79 while Glen Chapple held the tail together with 45 as they made 288. Needing just 162 to win, Chapple then came into his own with the ball, taking 6 for 40 as Kent made just 92 to lose by 70 runs. Lancs move a point ahead of Kent, and most critically five points out of the relegation zone. Both teams face title chasing teams next week and need decent points to keep themselves safe.

Suffering most from the Lancs come back were Yorkshire, who must have thought they would move above their Roses rivals after their draw with Somerset. Somerset batted first, knowing a win would take them to the top of the table. Having lost Marcus Trescothick first ball, they were indebted to an Ian Blackwell ton, with support from Peter Trego to reach 380. An Antony McGrath ton and 98 from Jacques Rudolph got Yorkshire to 414 and maximum bonus points. Somerset were then reduced to 39 for 3 as Yorkshire smelt victory. However, the time lost at the beginning of the game proved crucial and Somerset batted out to 317 for 8 and a draw. Yorks remain in the relegation zone with a trip to also struggling Sussex. Somerset entertain Lancs needing a win to stand any chance of taking the title.

Taking advantage at the top of the table were Nottinghamshire, who sent a woeful Surrey back to Division 2. Batting first Surrey made 267, by which point they knew that they had been relegated. Notts then went on to make 532, with Mark Wagh (141) and Samit Patel (135) putting on 242 for the 3rd wicket. Surrey then made just 122 second time round as they finished the season winless. Notts are in pole position and entertain in form Hampshire, who also have title ambitions.

Also in contention at the top are Durham, 380 who made against Sussex, Shiv Chanderpaul scoring a ton and Mohammed Sami taking five wickets. Chris Nash scored 96 as Sussex made 302 in reply. However, this was another game affected by the weather and Durham could only get to 125 for 2 as the game finished in a draw. Durham are 3rd, ten points behind Notts and face struggling Kent next week. Sussex play host to Yorks, knowing that a loser will almost certainly be relegated.

Prediction time: Very rarely this season has a team stayed at the top for more than a week (and most teams have topped the table at some point). I am therefore going to predict a Hants win over Notts, opening the door for Durham to take the title, whose win will relegate Kent, as Sussex and Yorks play out a draw.

Division 2
The match of the week was at Chelmsford where Essex needed to beat Warwickshire to keep their promotion push going. Batting first Essex made 341, with 18 year old Jaik Mickleburgh and Ryan ten Doeschate both making 72. The Bears then took charge in the form of Tony Frost, whose unbeaten 242 was the highest score for Warwicks against Essex. The Bears declared on 514 for 9 and then bowled Essex out for 316, John Maunders and Ravi Bopara both getting tons in a stand of 241 and Ian Salisbury taking six wickets as the last nine wickets fell for 69 runs. Warwickshire then made the 144 needed for the loss of 4 wickets to confirm their promotion. Essex face another season in Division 2.

Warwickshire’s win also promoted Worcestershire, who found themselves against a Middlesex team showing the form that I thought would lead them to the title at the beginning of the season. Tim Murtagh took six wickets as Worcester struggled to 265 despite a Stephen Moore century. Andrew Strauss (101) and Owais Shah (86) then put on 129 as Middlesex made 321, Gareth Andrew taking five wickets. Dirk Nannes took six wickets second time round to reduce Worcester to 122 and leave Middlesex needing 67 to win, which they did for the loss of 2 wickets. In the end, the result was not important to Worcester as now prepare for life in Division 1 and without Graeme Hick.

At the bottom of the table, Glamorgan took on Leicestershire. Batting first the Welshmen scored 450, with Gareth Rees and Michael Powell both getting tons. In reply, Leicester struggled to 201 and following on 311, despite Paul Nixon getting an unbeaten 106. Glamorgan scored the 63 needed for victory without losing a wicket and move above Leicester in the table.

Both Leicester and Glamorgan are above Gloucestershire, who played Derbyshire, bowling the home side out for just 188, David Brown taking 5 wickets. Graeme Wagg went one wicket better as Gloucester made 222. He then scored 72 as Derby made 431, Greg Smith top scoring with 92. Four more wickets for Wagg saw Gloucester bowled out for 280 and a Derbyshire win by 117 runs. Derbyshire move above Essex in the table while Gloucester remain winless and bottom.

England Player Watch
Michael Vaughan did better than Marcus Trescothick, although neither scored many and both got injured. In contrast, Andrew Strauss, Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara all got big scores in their matches and Matt Prior scored another half century.

Three more wickets for Steve Harmison in his excellent season, while Tim Bresnan and Adil Rashid were both in the wickets for Yorkshire

Player of the Week
Some brilliant individual performances this week including Antony McGrath, Ian Blackwell, Mark Wagh and Samit Patel with the bat, Ian Salisbury with the ball and Graeme Wagg with both. In any other week, Glen Chapple would have been a shoe-in for the award. However, for an unbeaten 242 in promotion clash that saw his team promoted, the Player of the Week is Tony Frost

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Hick: A phenomenon to be treasured

Graeme Hick's injury-ruined end to his career takes nothing away from a man who, for 23 years, has been an awesome and imperious sight in county cricket. The owner of countless records, he came to define Worcestershire. His international performances remain a riddle - even if it is too readily forgotten that he is a serious contender for an all-out England ODI XI - but at New Road, he was a phenomenon. And in his final season, he still managed a first-class average higher even than his age.

This is a piece I did a year ago, after he reached 40,000 first-class runs:

The Bradman of New Road

Thinking of the batting greats of this era, attention, inevitably, will turn first to those who made a big impact on the international scene. But, when people flicking through Wisden see a G.Hick, one of only 16 men to hit 40,000 first-class runs, they will wonder why it is his Test average was only a paltry 31.32.

Graeme Hick, although he was given a generous 65 Tests to prove his worth, can consider himself an unlucky Test cricketer. Having a seven-year qualifying period didn’t help – he is a largely bashful personality and did not enjoy being bandied about as the English Bradman, while his baptism against the West Indies in 1991 was particularly unforgiving.

Although his Test career only ended six years ago, Hick played the vast majority of his career in circumstances that bear no resemblance to the plethora of easy pickings available in international cricket today, a point that must be considered in the final analysis. Moreover, he was perennially a victim of selection upheaval, being dropped no fewer than 11 times throughout his career; he was doomed to continually veering from scapegoat to saviour, and it would have taken its toll on anyone. Shane Warne said he had "really been messed around".

During his only regular run in the side – between the start of 1993 and the end of the ‘95/96 South Africa tour – Hick averaged 45. Yet, testament to the bizarre selection of the era, he was dropped after the second Ashes Test in ’93, despite having scored 178, 47, 68, 26, 34, 22, 20 and then 64 in his last eight Test innings. In amongst it all he played some very fine innings, such as his maiden Test century, 178, in an innings defeat in India and a superb 141 at Centurion Park in 1995. Alas, he never got an Ashes century; Mike Atherton infamously declared him on 98* during the ’94-95 tour.

In spite of his relentless plundering of county attacks, however, his technique did have some fatal flaws, particularly against the short ball. And, it was because he had destroyed county attacks with almost unprecedented regularity prior to his international debut that it was so hard for him to alter his method.

Yet, away from the Test arena, he made runs with unfailing regularity everywhere he went. He has scored over 100 centuries for Worcestershire alone, including 172 against Messrs Ambrose, Patterson, Walsh and Bishop in 1988, at a time when touring games were still treated with respect. And his achievements in, when in his early 20s, being a phenomenal success for Auckland, in ‘87/88 and ‘88/89 and, after a slow start, averaging 49 in the extremely competitive Sheffield Shield in ‘90/91 are seldom remarked upon.

In one-day internationals, where the pressure is great but players are freer to play on instinct, can worry less about technique and the game is generally more batsman-friendly, Hick performed extremely well, averaging 37 over 126 games. Again, however, he was the victim of selectorial blunders, in that he was sometimes, as in 1996, dropped for bad Test form. Even at 36, he surely should have played in the 2003 World Cup.

Yet, throughout all this turmoil, Hick’s run-scoring at New Road remained a constant. To continue playing county cricket with enormous success even after suffering the anguish of international failings has been an exceptional achievement; only once, in ’91, have his international disappointments been replicated on the county stage.

Even at the age of 41, Hick has been in terrific form, averaging 47 in the County Championship, including scoring a century off Muralitharan at Old Trafford, and 68 in the Friends Provident Trophy.Wisden 2007 revealed that only Jack Hobbs has scored more hundreds in all professional cricket than Hick. It is testament to his longevity, his love for the game but, above all, his continued dedication to maximising his wonderful talent.

He has, of course, not been the batsman everyone thought he would be when, in those pre-England days, he could do no wrong as he mercilessly put attacks to the sword in a way that was both beautiful and brutal, a fusion of majestic timing, placement and sheer power.But he has continued, more or less, to do so for Worcestershire; he is unquestionably their finest ever player, owner of their highest ever score and a key man in two of the five Championships in their history.

Typical of his unassuming, modest manner he claims that he is “not really fussed” about reaching 40,000 first-class runs. Well, he should be. For 22 years, Hick has been the Bradman of New Road and, for all his failings, cricket will not forget a man whose run-scoring capacity at county level has defied belief.